The Lady of Shalott / Tennyson

A short poem about being a brook, written by Alfred Lord Tennyson (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892). See short biographical note at end of page.

The Lady of Shalott.


On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold1 and meet the sky:
And through the fields the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot2;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk3 and shiver
Through the wave that runs forever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot;
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges, trailed4
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed,
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The lady of Shalott?
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, “‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”


There she weaves by night and day
A magic web5 with colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river-eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbott on an ambling pad,6
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue,
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirrored magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
And music, went to Camelot;
Or, when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.7


A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross8 knight forever kneeled
To a lady in his shield
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.9
The bridle-bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazoned baldric10 slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armor rung,
Beside remote Shalott.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor,11 trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed12 into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river13
Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.


In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote,
The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse—
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot;
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
A corse between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”


This poem was written in 1832. Considered as a picture, or as a series of pictures, its beauty is unsurpassed. The story which is here so briefly told is founded upon a touching legend connected with the romance of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Tennyson afterwards (in 1859) expanded it into the Idyll called “Elaine,” wherein he followed more closely the original narrative as related by Sir Thomas Malory.

Sir Lancelot was the strongest and bravest of the Knights of the Round Table, and for him Elaine, “the fair maid of Astolat,” conceived a hopeless passion. “Her love was platonic and pure as that of a child, but it was masterful in its strength.” Having learned that Lancelot was pledged to celibacy, she pined away and died. But before her death she called her brother, and having dictated a letter which he was to write, she spake thus:

“‘While my body is whole, let this letter be put into my right hand, and my hand bound fast with the letter until I be cold, and let me be put in a fair bed with all my richest clothes that I have about me, and so let my bed and all my rich clothes be laid with me in a chariot to the next place whereas the Thames is, and there let me be put in a barge, and but one man with me, such as ye trust to steer me thither, and that my barge be covered with black samite over and over.’ . . . So when she was dead, the corpse and the bed and all was led the next way unto the Thames, and there all were put in a barge on the Thames, and so the man steered the barge to Westminster, and there he rowed a great while to and fro, or any man espied.”[23:A] At length the King and his Knights, coming down to the waterside, and seeing the boat and the lily maid of Astolat, they uplifted the hapless body of Elaine, and bore it to the hall.

“But Arthur spied the letter in her hand,
Stoopt, took, brake seal, and read it; this was all:
‘Most noble Lord, Sir Lancelot of the Lake,
I, sometime called the maid of Astolat,
Come, for you left me taking no farewell,
Hither, to take my last farewell of you.
[24] I loved you, and my love had no return,
And therefore my true love has been my death. . . .
Pray for my soul and yield me burial.
Pray for my soul thou too Sir Lancelot,
As thou art a knight peerless.'”[24:A]

And so the maid was buried, “not as one unknown, nor meanly, but with gorgeous obsequies, and mass and rolling music, like a queen. And the story of her dolorous voyage was blazoned on her tomb in letters gold and azure.”

1. wold. An open tract of hilly country, where but few trees are left. This word is more frequently used, however, to designate a forest or thick wood.

2. Camelot. It is supposed that this Camelot was Winchester. It was the seat of King Arthur’s court, and visitors are still shown the remains of what appear to have been certain kinds of intrenchments, which the inhabitants call “King Arthur’s Palace.” Sir Thomas Malory says: “Sir Ballin’s sword was put into marble stone, standing it upright as a great millstone, and it swam down the stream to the city of Camelot, that is, in English, Wincheste.” There was another Camelot, also King Arthur’s capital, on the river Camel, in Cornwall, to which Shakespeare makes reference in King Lear, II, ii. Tennyson, in “Gareth and Lynette,” describes the appearance of the city when approached in the early morning:

“Far off they saw the silver-misty morn
Rolling her smoke about the Royal mount,
That rose between the forest and the field.
At times the summit of the high city flash’d;
At times the spires and turrets half-way down
Prick’d thro’ the mist; at times the great gate shone
Only, that open’d on the field below:
Anon, the whole fair city had disappear’d.”

3. dusk. Produce a ruffled surface. A very rare use of this word. The river referred to is probably the Thames.

4. trailed. Lat. traho, to draw; Dutch treilen, to tow. What picture is presented to the imagination in the first five lines of this stanza? How do the barges differ in appearance and movement from the shallop mentioned two lines below?

5. web. Anything woven. stay. Stop.

6. pad. An easy-going saddle-horse; a palfrey. Describe the picture which is presented in this stanza.

7. Explain the meaning of the Lady’s exclamation.

[25] 8. red-cross knight. A Knight wearing a red cross. One of King Arthur’s Knights. The red-cross Knight in Spenser’s Faerie Queene symbolizes holiness.

“And on his brest a bloodie crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead, as living ever, him ador’d;
Upon his shield the like was also scor’d,
For soveraine hope, which in his helpe he had.
Right, faithfull, true he was in deede and word;
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.”

9. Galaxy. The milky-way. Gr. gala, galaktos, milk.

10. baldric. A belt thrown over the shoulder. From Lat. balteus.

11. bearded meteor. A shooting-star emitting rays of light in the direction in which it moves. The beard of a comet is the light which it throws out in front of it, in distinction from the tail or rays behind.

12. He flashed. His image was thrown upon and reflected from.

13.Tirra lirra.” French tire lire. Probably intended to imitate the note of the lark.


[23:A] Malory’s King Arthur, Part III.

[24:A] Tennyson’s Elaine.